In an age when youngsters are recruited by leading clubs before they have even mastered the art of shoelace-tying, Jamie Vardy’s rise to prominence with Leicester City is an exceptional story.
Five years ago, Vardy was playing amateur football for Stocksbridge Park Steels in England’s seventh tier and working part-time at a factory making medical splints.
Now he is an England international whose 13 goals have taken him clear of Sergio Aguero, Diego Costa and Wayne Rooney in the Premier League scoring charts and propelled Leicester to the top of the table.
“He’s an example to every aspiring young footballer,” former Leicester captain Steve Walsh told AFP.
“Leicester is buzzing, and all because of Jamie Vardy and his records.”
If Vardy finds the net against Manchester United on Saturday, the native of Sheffield in northern England will set a new Premier League record of scoring in 11 consecutive games.
His manager, Claudio Ranieri, has cited an 11-match scoring streak by Gabriel Batistuta for Fiorentina as the only precedent he can remember from personal experience.
Released by boyhood club Sheffield Wednesday aged 15 on the grounds that he was too small, Vardy cannot have imagined that he would one day be likened to Argentina’s all-time leading goal-scorer.
After leaving Wednesday he spent time away from football, studying sports science at a local college, before winding up at Stocksbridge, where he progressed through the youth ranks.
“He was always first for training and last out,” recalls Stocksbridge chairman Allen Bethel. “He was also the life and soul of the party, a Jack the lad.”
Vardy’s roguish streak occasionally caused him problems — he was sent off four times in his last season at Stocksbridge, deterring suitors Sheffield United — and he had trouble controlling his temper off the pitch.
A conviction for a late-night assault temporarily obliged him to wear an electronic tag and observe an 18:30 p.m. curfew, which would see him substituted midway through games so that he could get home in time.
Remembering one such mid-match dash, former Stocksbridge manager Gary Morrow said: “He jumped straight over the railings and into his parents’ car without even getting changed.”
Spectacularly prolific, the wiry striker joined Halifax Town from Stocksbridge and then moved on to Fleetwood Town, who sold him to Leicester for a non-league record £1 million ($1.5 million, 1.4 million euros) in 2012.
Since then, the milestones have zipped past: 16 goals in Leicester’s Championship promotion campaign, five in his first season as a Premier League player (including one in a dizzy 5-3 win over Manchester United) and a first England cap last June.
With England the 28-year-old is walking a path previously trodden by Leicester strikers Gary Lineker and Emile Heskey.
While he was initially perceived as mere ballast in Roy Hodgson’s squad, injuries to Daniel Sturridge and Danny Welbeck — not to mention his own scintillating form — mean a place at Euro 2016 is very much in sight.
August brought another forgettable episode when he was fined by Leicester after being caught on camera racially goading an Asian man at a casino, but after meeting the man to apologise, he quickly put the matter behind him.
Vardy follows players like Stuart Pearce, Chris Waddle and Ian Wright in rising from non-league to play for England and with each goal, he demonstrates that there is more than one route to the top.
“That non-league grounding has stood him in good stead,” adds Walsh, captain of Leicester’s 1997 League Cup-winning team.
“In his work-rate, closing people down, making it hard work for defenders, it’s non-stop effort.”
The player himself would not have done things any other way.
“I might have gone all the way through an academy and then this never happened,” Vardy told the Daily Telegraph earlier this year.
“That’s the joy of football. I’ve come my own way and it’s worked out the best for me.”